The Martian

A popular joke about Soviet space program circulated during the Space Race goes thus: “We shouldn’t let Khrushchev go to the Moon – he would plant maize there.” (reference to then First Secretary’s of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union harebrained schemes such as his insistence on massive expansion of the sown areas of maize, including environments clearly completely unsuitable for its growth, such as the inhospitable territories beyond the Arctic Circle). Matt Damon’s NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney doesn’t get to plant corn on the Moon, but he gets to do the second best thing: growing potatoes on Mars – in his own shit.

Mark Watney (portrayed by Matt Damon) is one of six astronauts on a planned month-long NASA expedition on Mars…

The Martian, similarly to Europa Report, is one of those science fiction films that put more emphasis on ‘science’ than on fiction. The film, directed by Ridley Scott is based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel of the same name. Before writing the book, Weir researched astronomy, orbital mechanics, the history of manned spaceflight and other related material in order to make the story, which is based on sound science and existing technology, as realistic as possible.

When the Ares III manned mission to Mars is hit by an intense sand storm, and the crew is making their way to the orbit-return module, astronaut Mark Watney is carried away by a powerful gust of wind and gets separated from the rest of the crew. As his bio-monitor is damaged by a piece of flying debris that hits his spacesuit, he is presumed dead. Seeing that the lander is starting to lean dangerously to one side, threatening to cut off the only escape route, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes a tough but logical decision to save the lives of the remaining members of the crew and gives orders to leave the planet, leaving Watney behind.

…when a dust storm forces the crew to abandon their base and cut their mission short, with Watney, hit by debris, blown away and presumed dead, left behind.

While the rest of the crew aboard the lander dock in Mars orbit with the Hermes spacecraft and start their long journey back to Earth, Watney regains his consciousness after surviving the storm and finds himself abandoned on the surface of Mars. With only a few percent of oxygen reserves remaining in the life-support system of his spacesuit, he reaches the relative safety of the Mars habitat, though he is unable to contact Hermes or NASA mission control center due to the destruction of hab’s communication equipment by the storm.

Watney soon realises that his only chance of returning to Earth is to wait out four long years after which the next manned mission, Ares IV, is scheduled to land on the planet. Unfortunately, he calculates that even with strict rationing he has only enough food to last for a quarter of that time. While rummaging through supplies, Watney happens upon a small bag of hermetically sealed potatoes and gets a life-saving idea. He uses his knowledge as a botanist to convert the biggest room of the habitat into an impromptu potato farm utilising Mars regolith fertilised with his, and his former crewmates’, faeces, and waters the crops by burning hydrazine from the rocket engine thus producing hydrogen, which, when combined with oxygen in the hab’s atmosphere creates the much needed H2O. He also modifies the Mars rover to make it capable of long journeys, as the Ares IV landing site is seven months’ travel away.

With his supplies of food running low, Watney, by a stroke of luck a botanist, turns into a first Martian farmer and starts growing potatoes fertilised by his own faeces.
Like Nikita Khrushchev, Mark Watney doesn’t get to plant maize on the Moon, but he gets to do the second best thing: grow potatoes on Mars

Back on Earth, while reviewing satellite photos of Mars, NASA engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notices that someone has cleaned the solar panels near the Mars habitat and realises that this can only mean one thing: astronaut Mark Watney, who was presumed dead, has in fact survived and is now stranded some 140 million miles from home. She tells senior NASA engineer Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of her finding, and they immediately start looking for a way to re-establish contact with the stranded astronaut. Fearing that the revelation could negatively affect their morale, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to tell the rest of the Ares III crew, who are currently on their way back to Earth aboard the spacecraft Hermes, about Watney being alive.

Watney meanwhile tries to address his second biggest problem – not being able to communicate with Earth, and he suddenly realises that the site of Ares III is not that far from the landing site of the Pathfinder probe. He locates the Pathfinder lander and its Sojourner rover, defunct since 1997, and takes them back to his compound, where he uses their equipment to regain contact with the mission control center. As the Pathfinder was not designed for human communication, Watney and the JPL (former operator of the probe) devise an ingenious method of creating words and sentences by pointing the Pathfinder’s camera at signs arranged by Watney in a circle around the probe and displaying letters of the alphabet converted to hexadecimal symbols. With the basic communication re-established, under instructions from mission control center Watney connects the probe to the Ares’s communication equipment and is soon able to send and receive normal text messages.

Watney also starts preparations for a months-long journey to the Ares IV landing site, as reaching it is his only chance of returning back to Earth.

As Watney makes good progress with his potato farming, Hermes flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and JPL director Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) conceive a plan to send a space probe to Mars and resupply the marooned astronaut to help him last until the Ares IV can reach him and take him back home. As the launch date of the resupply mission approaches, Sanders authorises NASA to tell the crew of the Hermes that Watney survived the sand storm and is still alive. With NASA cutting all corners in order to dispatch the probe within the small launch window available, Sanders makes a decision to skip inspections and the rocket carrying the probe explodes during its launch. Meantime on Mars, Watney suffers his own disaster when the airlock on his hab explodes, decompressing his makeshift greenhouse and killing all the crops. While he is still left with the ripe potatoes in the ground, he cannot grow any more, and his supply of food is drastically reduced.

Seeing that Watney’s situation is serious, and NASA’s options after the malfunction of their resupply rocket are limited, Chinese national space agency CNSA offers NASA a lifeline in the form of their classified rocket that can carry a payload to Mars. While NASA considers this option, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a NASA astrodynamicist, proposes a method of rescuing Watney by sending the Hermes, resupplied by provisions delivered by the Chinese rocket, into a gravitational slingshot around the Earth and back to Mars. Sanders rejects the plan, not wanting to extend the already long Ares III mission, thus risking the lives of the crew, but Henderson sends secretly the calculations of the trajectory to the crew of the Hermes who vote to defy the orders from the mission control and force the latter option on Sanders and NASA by changing their trajectory according to Purnell’s calculations. Not having other choice, NASA successfully resupplies the Hermes using the Chinese rocket, and Lewis’s crew begins their second journey to Mars.

Cultivation of crops on Mars is not an easy job, as Watney finds when his makeshift greenhouse violently decompresses and all plants are destroyed by frost.

After seven months, Watney has driven the modified Mars rover and all his key life support systems to the site of the planned Ares IV mission, just as the Hermes makes its second approach to Mars. But just when he thinks that he has the worst part of the plan behind him, Kapoor informs him that the Ares IV return vehicle (landed on Mars in advance of the Ares IV mission) is too heavy to reach the projected orbit of the Hermes. Following instructions from Kapoor, Watney strips the Ares IV capsule down to the bare minimum to save weight, including the heat shield and windows (!), using only his spacesuit to protect him from the vacuum of space, prompting him to half-joke that they are ‘sending him into space in a convertible’. When Watney's vehicle despite this fails to achieve the altitude needed to be intercepted by the Hermes, whose speed is also too high, the crew improvises first by rupturing an airlock to release the ship’s atmosphere and slow down by aerobraking, then by Lewis performing a tethered EVA to reach the Ares IV module. With the tether at its end, and several metres still between them, Watney pierces the glove of his pressurised space suit in order to create an improvised jet pack and, while first spinning out of control, soon comes close enough for Lewis being able to catch him in her MMU.

Once aboard, Commander Lewis reports to NASA that all six crew members are safely aboard and the whole world, which was watching the entire rescue mission with bated breath on televisions in their homes as well as on big screens in bars, restaurants and in the city squares, erupts with excitement…

TRIVIA: Wadi Rum valley in Jordan, used as a backdrop for Martian landscape, featured in other films set on Mars, including Red Planet, Mission to Mars and The Last Days on Mars.